For Bob Perkins of Manhattan, Mont., there's a single natural ability that has placed humans at the top of the food chain for thousands of years. It's not our "big, bulgy brains," he says. Perkins chalks up our continued survival as omnivores to one evolutionary edge: Our ability to throw stuff.
"That's one of the first things babies learn to do is throw stuff, and that's their first experience in direct control over their local environment," says Perkins, whose status as the world's foremost expert in the ancient dart-throwing atlatl has earned him the nickname Atlatl Bob. "This is big in human development."
That ability became a hot topic in the Montana Legislature last week when Sen. Greg Hinkle, R-Thompson Falls, introduced a bill legalizing hand-thrown spear hunting. The legislation proved popular with the Senate Fish and Game Committee, which felt the only change needed was an amendment specifying when spear hunting could occur. But some sportsmen remain wary.
"Our question is: Ethically, can you kill an elk with a hand-thrown spear?" asks Tony Jones, president of the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association. "We don't think so."
This isn't the first time Montana has considered legislation allowing the use of primitive weapons. Perkins was involved in an effort in the 1980s to legalize atlatl hunting for the first two days of the archery season. The measure died on the table, Perkins recalls.
The atlatl has made a steady comeback since the 1980s. The World Atlatl Association says the technology is "part of the current surge in recreational interest in 'primitive skills.'" Groups conduct atlatl competitions worldwide; Perkins helped found the annual Montana Atlatl Mammoth Hunt more than 20 years ago.
"It's gaining popularity steadily worldwide, and in Montana," Perkins says.
Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen brought spear hunting into the limelight last year when he appeared on the television program Relentless Pursuit. Allen successfully speared an elk from a tree platform, then issued a spirited on-camera warning to other wildlife: "All you bears out there, watch out. You're next."
It's displays like that that have Jones concerned about both traditional spears and the more sophisticated atlatl.
"How do you regulate it?" Jones wonders, pointing out the lack of guidelines offered in Hinkle's bill. "It's a nightmare...And we don't want to see another black eye for hunters."